HSU Senior, Jess Westman, Premiers His Musical “Wheels”

June 4, 2021 Jaidyn Kamplain

While the Hardin-Simmons Theatre Program has produced numerous plays and musicals, there is rarely an opportunity to showcase a student-written and directed musical. This week, HSU will be doing just that. Senior Jess Westman is presenting Wheels, an inspiring musical inspired by his personal struggles with muscular dystrophy.

At a very young age, Westman was diagnosed with Becker muscular dystrophy, a muscle-killing disease that affects many people around the world. Although Westman was diagnosed with one of the mildest forms of muscular dystrophy, he still felt numerous ramifications throughout his life, including extreme amounts of soreness and exhaustion following physical activity. As it intensified, the idea of Wheels popped into his head.

“There was this simple fact I considered for quite some time before I even typed a single word of the libretto: there are kids out there like me who aren’t as fortunate, who don’t have the luxury of walking or breathing semi-normally,” shared Westman. “What if there was a show or a musical where they could see themselves onstage? They wouldn’t have to watch the leads tap dance – the leads would roll, just like them.”

Cast members act in "Wheels."

Wheels focuses on a brother and sister who struggle with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy as they navigate life and its many travesties. Rather than defining the characters by their disabilities, Westman has aimed to portray each character’s pain, love, and capability. He hopes to recognize the harmful nature of treating those with disabilities as less than humans with complex emotions and dreams.

“It was vital to me that the characters who struggle with what I have – some even worse than what I have – were represented first and foremost as human. As giggly, angry, devastated, joyful humans reacting to the absolute worst and best of life,” stated Westman.

Although originally pitched as a short play for HSU’s “DirectFest,” Wheels became a full-fledged musical after months of work by the senior. HSU’s chapter of Alpha Psi Omega (APO), Zeta Theta Cast (National Theatre Honor Society) applied and received a $3,000 grant from the National APO office to help sponsor the original, student-written musical.

The final boost Westman needed to complete the project was discovering Mattie JT Stepanek, the late disabled poet and activist. Amid struggling with dysautonomia mitochondrial myopathy, Stepanek wrote the award-winning poetry books titled Heartsongs. Westman has dedicated Wheels to him, and 30% of box-office proceeds will be going to the Mattie Stepanek Foundation.

Students from McMurry, Abilene Christian, and HSU are participating in the show. Westman believes that this inclusivity was necessary given the unique approach to community that he wrote Wheels to have.

“Everyone is uniquely themselves and has something they’re bringing to the table,” he shared. “Hearing the songs come together after hours of conducting and playing notes on the piano is one of the most unexplainably joyous things I have ever gotten to witness, and I can’t be thankful enough for the work every actor has put into this show so far.”

The show will be presented from June 3-6 in Behrens Auditorium. View times and purchase tickets.